Friday, February 21, 2014

Not so special

By repeating that special twice, Carver manages to breathe new freshness and vigor into a word that has, by now, been blunted out of meaning.
Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

As Francine Prose suggests, words can, like knives or toothpicks, become blunted through use. The more we use them, the less powerful their meaning. I have written in the past how the word horrendous, heard so often in the days following 9-11 and since, may no longer be adequate for future disasters. Like the words terrible and horrible, it ceases to carry the punch it once did. It has become blunted. If a flat tire on the way home from work can be horrendous, then you need something stronger to describe a massacre.

Most capable writers refrain from using the same word twice in the same paragraph, and certainly not in the same sentence. That Raymond Carver uses special twice in consecutive sentences in his short story Feathers, as Prose points out, serves to bring some attention to the bland word, to give it a little zing. Most of us try to do that, less successfully, by using phrases like "very special" or "truly special." Carver does it by breaking the unwritten rule about repetition.

Repetition didn't help my pastor last Sunday. He must have used the word special eight or 10 times during the service. Had I known how often he would say the word I would have kept count. Each time he said it the word became less sharp, less meaningful. If this Sunday is special and last Sunday was special and, presumably, next Sunday will be special, then what does special mean anyway?

I was reminded of a couple of songs, first the Ray Stevens recording with the line "Everything is beautiful in its own way." There may, in fact, be a bit of truth there, beauty being in the eye of the beholder and all that. Yet if everything is beautiful, what word do we use to describe rainbows and Bryce Canyon? We don't need the new Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition to let us know that some people are more beautiful than others.

The second song comes from Gilbert and Sullivan. The line goes, "If everybody's somebody, then no one's anybody." It's like when you are given a certificate just for showing up or get a prize just for playing the game. If, as in Lake Wobegon schools, all the children are above average, then average has lost all its meaning. Everything and everybody can't be special. Each can be unique and each can have value, but they can't all be special or special becomes meaningless.

My wife received a card with the words "Special Valentine" on the cover. It was from one of her female friends, certainly not from me. I tend to recoil every time I see a greeting card containing the word special. With special needs, special education and Special Olympics, a grandchild, niece or nephew might actually be insulted to be called special. Mostly the word just sounds trite to me, never mind how it may sound to the person receiving the card.

So what does one do? It is probably too late to rescue the word. We can look for substitutes like extraordinary or exceptional, although they too have been dulled by overuse. At the very least we can try to reserve our use of the word for, well, special occasions.

No comments:

Post a Comment